Surely the most spectacular of the world naval developments of 2011 was the advent of the first Chinese aircraft carrier, the former Soviet Varyag. Rumors have it renamed Shi Lang, after the Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan for the Chinese Empire. Reportedly two other carriers are being built in Chinese shipyards, steel already having been cut. This year the carrier ran her preliminary sea trials, and some reports had Chinese pilots making touch-and-go landings aboard her. The Chinese building that is said to be used for carrier system integration has a simulated carrier flight deck atop it, and the Chinese press has been full of carrier stories for some time.
The carrier would seem to reflect a dramatic reorientation of the Chinese navy. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was created by Soviet advisors, so for decades the Chinese navy seemed to be following a Soviet model. The Soviets always thought of their navy as a coast defense force, gradually extending the defensive perimeter out to sea.
During the Cold War, many Western analysts associated this extension with the growing striking range of Western navies. Enormous effort went into ocean surveillance, which was intended to locate Western naval forces before they could get within attack range. An elaborate command and control system directed Soviet anti-ship forces, particularly missile-armed bombers and fast submarines, against those Western strike groups.
When the West adopted ballistic missile submarines, Soviet strategic anti-submarine warfare (ASW) was patterned after Soviet anti-carrier measures. The Soviet attack groups were backed by large numbers of coast defense craft, ultimately armed with missiles. In addition, the Soviet navy fielded its own strategic attack submarines, but it was never clear whether they were intended mainly to attack Western naval targets (such as bases) or whether they were part of the larger Soviet strategic force. The emphasis may well have changed from the first to the second over time, as Soviet submarine missiles gained range.
The PLAN has had a broadly similar structure for decades. It has a naval air arm, currently changing from medium bombers (copies of the long-standard Soviet Tu-16 Badger) to supersonic Russian-supplied Su-30s armed with supersonic anti-ship missiles (AS-17s).
The air arm is backed by a large submarine force, most of it diesel-powered and hence useful mainly to create a barrier through which a Western strike force might have to steam. The submarine force showed that China has a working ocean surveillance system, because it took such a system to set up the interception of the now-decommissioned carrier Kitty Hawk by a diesel submarine a few years ago. Backing the submarines is the world’s only remaining numerous force of coastal missile boats, the current one being a trimaran. Unlike the old Soviet navy, the PLAN also has an important wartime offensive role, an amphibious attack on Taiwan. It is not clear to what extent Chinese amphibious practice mirrors that of the old Soviet Union, for which amphibious operations were an integral part of a larger war plan to seize Western Europe.
The Soviet-style fleet structure meshed with official pronouncements that China intended to safeguard herself by gaining control of a series of “island chains” farther and farther offshore. The idea of seaborne defensive perimeters is much more characteristic of an army than of a navy; a key point for navies is that the sea is far too vast for that. To the extent that the old Soviet navy, the parent of the PLAN, was army-oriented, was no surprise. The defensive perimeters demand numbers of ships. However, there is an alternative – something that can pounce very rapidly wherever an enemy may appear. That was the idea of the Soviet naval bomber fleet, and also of its Chinese equivalent. It may be that recent Chinese claims that their DF-21D ballistic missile can deal with carriers represent the army-oriented side of Chinese naval thinking and the understanding that modern warships are far too expensive to form distant perimeter defenses.
A few years ago the Chinese government decided to expand its navy. To do that, it needed a lot more sailors – which it produced simply by transferring army officers and other personnel. Unfortunately, armies think very differently from navies, or at least from Western-style navies focused on global operations and on gaining and using command of the sea.
A carrier may represent something very different from a seagoing army. Its air group can dominate an area, and it may be the only way to provide effective support to troops operating at a distance. Screening the carrier against enemy attack requires expensive warships. Sheer cost makes it difficult or impossible for the PLAN to field large numbers of separate carrier groups. A few such groups have nothing to do with perimeters. To the extent that they are intended to dominate an area, they must be able to fight other fleets.